Chevroches, Canal du Nivernais

Thursday, 26 June 2014

From Here to There and Back Again.

Wildlife at Aviemore, Scotland
'Due to industrial action by French air traffic controllers it is vital that we make our scheduled take off slot. Would passengers quickly make their way to their seats- and please move out of the aisle to let others past.'

Our pilot was clearly anxious to be off and perhaps slightly irritated at those clogging up the boarding process by slowly removing and stowing the entire contents of their home wardrobe which they are wearing in order to avoid paying for checked baggage. It's a bit like a lengthy strip show performed by a chorus line of not particularly attractive people - thankfully they stop whilst still wearing a couple of layers. As our pilot reminded us, we were lucky to be flying. Many flights to France had been cancelled.

The train disruption is apparently ongoing. We read in the English language newspaper  'Connexion' that the rail employees are attempting to retain their generous conditions including retiremnent at 50 for drivers (55 for everyone else) and free rail travel for them and their families. Our journey to Briare was without major problem this time though. The one hiccup being the dreaded automatic doors of the metro. We were changing trains at the busy Gare de Lyon and had to wait for a large number of people to disembark. I don't know whether the driver just shuts the door and sets off after a certain length of time in order to keep to a schedule but they certainly don't hang around for everyone to get on safely. The alloted time was apparently up just as everyone began to get on - leaving one of us on the platform and the other on the inside of the train along with the handle of a pull along suitcase whilst the case itself hung from the outside. Fortunately, the doors reopened briefly (perhaps they respond to loud swearing) and we, along with our possesions, managed to make it aboard.

Our trip to Scotland had been made early this year due to unexpected and somewhat unhappy circumstances but we had a lovely time visiting family. We managed a brief trip up the West Coast and a few days in the Highlands as well as a day out at the marvellous Royal Highland Show in Edinburgh. 2 weeks in Scotland is never enough (how long would be enough I wonder?) so we hope to return later on. There is an important referendum taking place in September which is generating much discussion in Scotland and indeed London seems to have suddenly remembered there is this other nation somewhere in the far north to which they might do well to pay attention  - up until mid September anyway.
Going up-the funicular railway in the Cairngorms

In the meantime we are once again onboard L'Avenir. Jeremie, the French mechanic from Chatillon, has assured us that our water pump is repaired and he will bring it to us this evening. Meanwhile, the resident engineer can be heard cursing from the bowels of the boat as he does the preparation for refitting the pump. I can tell from the blue tinged air (and it's not from burning oil) that he does not rate highly the engineering skills of those who originally put this engine together...

Tuesday, 24 June 2014


Clydesdales striking out at the Royal Highland Show, Edinburgh

A couple of weeks ago we departed France mightily ticked off at striking French rail employees. Tomorrow we are booked to return and now it is the turn of the air traffic controllers. 'But you come here every year.' said a friend today. 'Surely you expected this? Summer strikes are an annual occurrence.' Well, actually, no we didn't. We don't really pay attention to life in the fast lane.We're normally pretty unfazed by strikes of lock keepers. The travel is slow and the inconvenince slight. Just tie up for a day and enjoy a sympathetic glass of wine in the sun. The faster the travel the more annoying, disruptive and expensive things become.Working around a striking train cost us plenty but now it has come to aeroplanes we're talking serious money. Heaven help those in the future if they face intergalactic or even time travel strikes. Today I have been fixated on our airline's flight tracker. At the time of writing our flight is still optimistically listed as 'on time'. The other options are 'delayed' which is a euphemism for huddling for hours on end amongst the miserable masses in an airport terminal or 'cancelled' which means you're stuffed, your holiday's stuffed and, frankly, 'stuff you'. I don't know why there is a strike. I'm sure they have legitimate reasons with which I might even be sympathetic but picking on the ordinary paying punter is really not on.
This summer is proving difficult.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Back to Bonnie Scotland

From the ferry - crossing the Firth of Clyde to Dunoon

 Scotland is as beautiful as ever. That final descent of the plane as it sweeps around the Pentland Hills, over the Firth of Forth and into Edinburgh never fails to make my spirits soar as we eagerly gaze out of the window searching for those familiar and much loved landmarks. Look! there's the Forth Bridge, Leith, Arthur's Seat, the Castle. Well of course they're there. Where else would they be? And then we're down and waiting to clamber down the steps onto the tarmac. The sun is shining, which is lucky, but we still don jackets and brace ourselves for the usual blast of cold wind as we step through the plane's door. What hits us instead is a wave of warm air heavy with humidity. Everyone is peeling off their jackets and cardigans and looking at each other with surprised expressions. There are many extraordinary things happening in Scotland this year and the weather seems to have decided to join in.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Mouvement Social

Word(s) for the day - 'mouvement social'. I hadn't come across this expression until yesterday. I think it literally means labour movement but in fact, should you see those words, there will be little of either going on. In short it means 'strike'. There was (and still is) quite a bit of striking happening  in France. About 2/3 of the trains weren't running and taxis were blockading the airport. The disputes were different but the combined effect made for a frustrating day for us. Sadly that was the day we had organised to travel from Briare to Paris in order to catch our flight to Edinburgh. In an unusual burst of organisation, I had walked to the station the day before and bought the tickets from the machine. Perhaps if I'd gone into the staton and purchased them from the human in the ticket office I might have been given a clue that there was trouble brewing. As it was, I did look at all the notices up on the window detailing 'travaux' (works) and subsequent delays and cancellations but as far as I'm aware there was nothing regarding a strike.
We arrived at the station at 8am in - plenty of time for the train 20 minutes later. As soon as the station came into view we suspected there was something amiss; the shutters were down over the main door and there was a distinct lack of other passengers. In fact, there were only another 2 and they were standing looking disconsolate on the pavement outside. Feeling apprehensive we went onto the platform via the side gate and were immediately relieved to discover a rail employee on duty as there always is when a train is due -until, that is, our cheery 'bonjour' was met with that lift of the shoulders we have come to know signals bad news. A 'bon jour' it was definitely not to be.
The only words I understood from her rattled out sentences were no trains to Paris today. I don't know why it should be but some days I seem to understand nearly everything and others my mind goes into freeze mode and I just blank out. This was one of those times, so she phoned her superior who spoke English. "You must take a taxi to Montargis and catch the train for Paris at 9.04," he said, giving us the name of his prefered taxi firm who may or may not have been a friend, relative or associate. Outside the station we discovered that the only other 2 strandees were also from boats and one needed to get to Paris for a connection. The railway approved taxi had been summoned by them 10 minutes previously and as the clock ticked on (it was still working)  the anxiety levels grew - Montargis being about 40 km from Briare. Our young taxi driver eventually arrived, 'I can get you there in 30 minutes!' she said and, putting  her foot down, she did with minutes to spare (although we were quite a few euros poorer). The train, being one of the few to run that day, was packed and took the scenic, slow route but we were grateful to get there at all.
On arrival in Paris we thought our troubles to be over but no; the trains out to the airport were also affected necessitating deciphering the notice boards (  'mouvement social' - what's that?) changing routes and being crammed into hot carriages with some very upset tourists laden down with luggage. Could've been worse. Our travelling companion had decided to take a taxi. I hope he fared well.

Now the air traffic controllers have joined in. I don't know why but perhaps it was something to do with the lack of air condtioning in the terminals. People already stressed from the public transport debacle were passing out under the heat blasting from the halogen lights and the sun blazing through the windows and skylights - why do they have all those skylights?
We were lucky to get out when we did.
Written in Edinburgh where it is cool and calm and still light at 10.30pm. I'd forgotten how much I love these long, long summer nights.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Vague Notions

Crossing the Loire on the Pont de Briare Aqueduct

As some of you may already know, we are not ones for making grand plans - we're more of the 'vague notion' school of thought. We decide the general direction, set off and make decisions on the way, sometimes at the toss of a coin. This year's vague notion, probably encouraged by the WW1 commemorations, was to head north, perhaps drop into Paris for a week and then head towards the Somme. Well, we've been aboard over a week now and our current location, at Briare, is about 6km from our starting point. A Bourgogne escargot could make better time.We have come to know this particular stretch of canal very well though. We're on first name terms with the lock keepers between here and Ouzouer and we can't speak highly enough of the Briare harbourmaster - she has been helpful, sympathetic, considerate and kind.

Things began well. The winter in this area of France was mild - 'just like summer' according to our taxi driver. Something of an exaggeration I'd say- otherwise why was our boat covered in a thick layer of filthy soot deposited by the wood fires of the village of Chatillon? 2 days of scrubbing and pressure hosing and L'Avenir emerged from the grime looking a little worse for wear - another summer of painting and varnishing looks to be in prospect. But there was no frost damage which is always a bonus.

Our incentive for getting everything shipshape in record time was that our first visitors for the year were due to arrive a few days after us. Katy and Oscar, it was a delight to have you aboard. Your visit may have been short but you managed a fair overview of life on the canals; cruising over the beautiful Pont de Briare aqueduct, negotiating locks (excellent rope throwing skills by the way), red beer and aperitifs at canalside cafes, a typical14 euro 4 course midday 'formule' menu, restaurants good, mediocre and interesting( the Gieser, not Caesar, salad will go down in family folklore), cycling the towpath, the joys of boating in the rain, birthday champers,chocolates cakes, cats and poppies etc. etc. We would love to have you again.

Our trip to Ouzouer is the extent of our voyage so far. We went there yesterday intending to stay at the excellent mooring for a couple of days but on the way strange noises began to emanate from the engine. What began as a slight whistle grew to a horrible grinding and so today we limped slowly back to Briare keeping our fingers crossed all the way that l 'Avenir would make it. She did. Now the skipper, in his more usual guise as engineer, has unbolted the offending bit of the engine and cycled off with it to find a French mecahnic who might actually be at work this Pentecost holiday.*
The offending piece of the engine successfully removed

They will have a fortnight to fix and hopefully not lose it. Scotland has put out an unexpectedly early call to us and we are off there the day after tomorrow.

'The best laid plans gang aft agley' (says Rabbie Burns ) so it's wiser to stick to vague notions (moi).

*update.  We have our first 'shrug' of the year. The French mechanic can't do the job. Apparently it needs to be sent off somewhere far, far away...... Skipper in even worse mood as the engine part was so heavy it tore off the bike panier. Wine o'clock I think.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Tips for the Long Haul

Remontee du Saumon
 A step back in time. The annual re-enactment of the old working sailing boats travelling (at high speed due to the fierce current) on the Loire. In the old days the boats had sails. These intrepid re-enactors have cleverly concealed outboards.

'Les Valeureux Mariniers' exiting the ancient Mantelot lock onto the River Loire at Chatillon

Until such time as 'Tardis Travel' eventuates, getting from here to there, when 'there' is on the other side of the planet, is never going to be anywhere near the top of my list of fun things to do. I recognise, however, that we are lucky to be able to travel at all and to whinge about its drawbacks seems churlish in the extreme. So, I am not complaining. Just making some observations on what I learned/was reminded of on our latest long haul in the hope that it makes your next journey more pleasant.

  • when you book, look at the plane as well as the price. We had 2 legs on a 777 and one on an A380. The A380 was luxury by comparison. Same number of seats across the way but a much wider plane*. More room, bigger tv screen. I don't know anything about any other planes but in my experience if they give a thing a fancy name it's quite often not very good.
  • speaking of seat room; if you are vastly overweight and your travel dates are far enough in the future, you might want to consider a diet and not just for your own comfort. If bits of you are spilling out of your alloted space and into your neighbour's seat area for something like 14 hours they are likely to be upset.
  • wear deodorant. Please. (Just as an aside, in France you can buy deodorant that claims to last 96 hours.It's marketed at men. Who doesn't wash for 96 hours?? Actually, I think perhaps there are a few but either they don't buy that brand or it doesn't work.)
  • if you're travelling with kids bring something to entertain them. 3 Disney movies they've probably already seen is not going to keep them occupied. Don't count on the airline giving out activity packs. There were none offered on our flights.So fill up that cute little pull-along hand baggage you bought them with books, colouring books etc rather than sweets and snacks. Airline seats are pretty roomy for small children so, unlike everyone else, they should be fairly comfortable with one exception; their feet don't reach the floor. However, they do reach the seat in front. Discourage them from constantly kicking that seatback or it might be the adult seated there having a screaming temper tantrum rather than your child. Not a pretty sight.
  • don't wear a rucksack/backpack on your back on busy public transport. Apart from bowling people over every time you turn around you may very well get caught in the automatic doors as they close. I've seen it happen.
  • lastly, and this is specific to the Paris metro which, on the whole, is a brilliant way to get around the city. If it's busy the area around the door will be packed. Some people  may refuse to move aside to let you past. You won't have time for niceties - either push or resign yourself to getting off at the next station.
 Now that we are here we're having a brilliant time!!!

*have been told that some airlines squeeze an extra seat in the middle section on the A380 making 5. Now that's going to be uncomfortable. So, check the configuration of the seating online.